When former Spoleto Festival USA Director Gian Carlo Menotti arrived in Charleston each year, his welcoming committee was a plate of homemade brownies.
The tradition started at a party longtime Spoleto volunteer Sandra Lipton held for orchestra members, many of whom are in the city rehearsing as early as May 1.
“I thought those people needed some home hospitality,” she said.
She and her now-retired husband, Morey Lipton, opened their home for the musical crew, and Lipton made most of the food. During the party, Lipton’s young daughter Ellen spotted Menotti pocketing napkin-swathed brownies.
She asked him if he liked her mother’s dessert, and he responded excitedly in Italian.
“He made a big deal,” Lipton recalled. “So I offered to make more, and then every year I would get a phone call confirming where to send them.”
Sandra’s brownies made it all the way to Vogue magazine, where they were mentioned in a story about Menotti’s Charleston connections. But a chocolate baked good isn’t what makes Sandra Lipton, or the Lipton family, a Spoleto cornerstone.
In March 1976, Lipton received a call to volunteer for a new Charleston festival that had just received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.
She was intrigued by the idea of an arts festival with ties to Italy, and she accepted an assignment with the Housing Committee.
After some shuffling of the ranks, Lipton became chairwoman of the committee. The task was daunting, but her husband encouraged her to stick with it.
“He told me, ‘You’ll be on the first real local committee and your job can just be damage control,’?” she said.
That led to a role with the Spoleto Scene Steering Committee, which was started to encourage patronage of the festival. Lipton held fundraisers and special events to honor the “turquoise button-wearers” who donated time and money.
Lipton spent most of her time in the office, then located at the College of Charleston, making phone calls and creating mailing lists. She was among the first people to call arts organizations around the nation and publicize Spoleto.
“It got to be addictive, and I went sometimes two and three days a week,” she said. “I knew it was going to be the greatest thing that ever happened to Charleston.”
She quickly convinced her family to join as well. The first recruit was her husband. Morey volunteered as festival physician and the couple began to make many lifelong friends, including Charles Wadsworth.
“Wadsworth was talking and eating one night — which is not a good thing to do — and he bit his tongue right down the middle,” said Morey Lipton, who writes for the Charleston Mercury.
Lipton stitched him up quickly, and Wadsworth returned to the stage that same night. It wasn’t uncommon for performers to have incidents before or after their shows, and Lipton learned quickly to know when medical attention was needed.
“I got to meet everyone,” he said. “The opera singers, especially, always showed up throat-bound right before opening night. I did a lot of reassuring in that part of the job.”
Throughout the years the Lipton family maintained a close relationship with Menotti. They often invited him for dinner when he was in town, and when their daughter Ellen, who was a festival apprentice, visited Italy during her junior year of college, she was treated like a member of the Menotti family.
“We knew him quite well, so it was very sad when ways parted,” Sandra Lipton said. “I always say he’s the goose that laid the golden egg.”
In nearly 25 years as a volunteer and eight years on the festival’s board of directors, Lipton served purely for the love of it, she said.
She and her husband still attend many performances each season. They even have had the artists stay in their Johns Island home for short periods of time, and when rickshaws and taxis were hard to find, they offered rides to the performers and attendees.
“The festival ran into our life, it just got incorporated and the people who come every year became our honorary family,” she said.
Volunteer Coordinator David Graham, who manages 16 people in his office, said that’s the case for a lot of volunteers.
“They love the arts, want to give back and can spare the time,” he said. “We’re very grateful for them. Without the help, it would be a madhouse of phones ringing.”
Even now, Graham spots Sandra Lipton visiting the offices at the festival headquarters on George Street.
“My mind is still working like a volunteer,” she said.
She never missed a festival, only a day here and there. As a lifelong Charlestonian who spent her childhood days on Grove Street, Lipton sees firsthand what Spoleto has brought to her hometown’s economy.
“Spoleto has raised the bar for the arts in this community,” she said. “It has brought all kinds of people who retire or can work from anywhere and those people support the arts and restaurants and make so many things possible in Charleston, a little sleepy Southern town.”
She paused, and there’s a smile in her voice.
“It’s been a wonderful trip. I’m proud that I knew it was going to be great.”
Leah Stacy is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.